- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
In 2005, the U.S. State Department banned the controversial Indian politician Narendra Modi from coming to the United States for his bigoted views and his role in riots that claimed some 1,000 lives. Earlier this fall, Modi was invited to participate in a Capitol Hill event anyway.
A flyer for the event displayed the official seal of the House of Representatives and identified “the House Republican Conference” as the host. The top congressional Republican in charge of that conference, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), says the flyer is a fraud drafted without the permission of Republicans. But correspondence between the congresswoman and Modi suggests the two politicians had a recent falling out after anti-genocide groups protested Modi’s participation.
Scheduled for this Tuesday, the event billed as “India Day on Capitol Hill” boasted the attendance of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) McMorris Rodgers and other top Republicans. The flyer was created by the National Indian American Public Policy Institute (NIAPPI), which also sponsored the event as a way of bringing more Indian-Americans into the Republican fold. The flyer noted that Modi, now a leading prime ministerial candidate, would attend “via Satellite video.”
After The Cable obtained a copy of the flyer, it raised the issue with representatives for McMorris Rodgers. Despite repeated requests, no one from her office was willing to speak on-record. One aide familiar with the situation denied the congresswoman’s involvement in the event. “She did not invite him to participate in any activity that took place today,” said the aide. “[Modi and McMorris Rodgers] don’t have a relationship.”
The fact that McMorris Rodgers is now distancing herself from Modi is, perhaps, unsurprising. Currently the chief minister of Gujarat, a region in India’s northwest, Modi was banned from the United States for his role in the 2002 communal riots there that claimed over 2,000 lives. The Hindu nationalist was accused of stoking ethnic tensions and failing to protect Gujarat’s Muslim residents — hundreds of whom were massacred in the streets. The State Department revoked his visa under Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which makes any foreign official who was responsible or “directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for a visa.
The State Department decision precipitated a resolution by the House of Representatives to condemn a range of Modi’s actions, including promoting Nazi ideology. The sponsor, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said the State Department “has discussed the role of Modi and his government in promoting attitudes of racial supremacy, racial hatred, and the legacy of Nazism through his government’s support of school textbooks in which Nazism is glorified.” The resolution said Modi revised school textbooks, which mentioned the “charismatic personality of Hitler the Supremo” and failed to acknowledge the horrors of the Holocaust.
It’s unclear why it took McMorris Rodgers so long to discover Modi’s controversial past, but it may be a reflection of her relationship with Shalli Kumar, a Chicago-based Modi supporter and founder of NIAPPI, the group that was sponsoring the Capitol Hill event. As recently as this fall, the congresswoman presented herself as an emphatic supporter of Modi and appeared supportive of his participation in the Capitol Hill event.
“First of all, I want to congratulate you on winning the nomination of the BJP for Prime Minister of India,” she wrote to Modi this fall, in a letter obtained by The Cable. “I tried to reach you by telephone right after your win, but was unable to connect.”
She went on to discuss a meet-up between Indians and U.S. lawmakers on the same date listed on Kumar’s flyer. “As we have discussed, we are planning on a Bharat (India) day on Capitol Hill. This will take place on November 19, 2013,” she wrote in the letter. “As you know, our good friend Mr. Shalli Kumar is the Chairman of my Advisory Council on Indian American Outreach. You should have also received an invitation to a tribute rally he [is] arranging on Bharat Day, which he welcomed you to address the Indian American community, and the Congressional leaders who are present, through satellite video.”
McMorris Rodgers’s strong support of Modi didn’t begin there. According to congressional disclosure records, the congresswoman travelled to Gujarat on a March 2013 trip financed by Kumar. The total expense for her and her husband was almost $15,000.
Following the trip, McMorris Rodgers spoke glowingly of Modi in a video interview she taped with Kumar.
“When I heard you tell me about Chief Minister Modi, I thought, I have to get to India,” she said. “He’s had tremendous success. To be able to meet chief Modi and to see first hand what he has accomplished was so impressive. And not only does he have the vision but he’s able to execute double-digit GDP growth. One percent unemployment…. It is tremendous to see what he’s been able to do…. He exceeded my expectations.”
In the video, the two also discuss bringing Indians and Republicans together on Capitol Hill. “[I’m] excited to be partnering with you on this effort,” says the congresswoman.
Representatives for McMorris Rodgers would not say when the relationship with Kumar and Modi soured. However, there appears to be no love lost.
The congresswoman’s office has now served Kumar a “cease and desist” letter instructing him to stop misrepresenting the Republican Party. The House is also looking into legal options against Kumar regarding improper use of the congressional seal, stationary, and indicia on the flyer.
It’s possible the relationship came to an end when North American advocacy groups such as Coalition Against Genocide (CAG) learned about Modi’s participation in the event and lobbied the Republican leadership to shut it down.
Shaik Ubaid, a founder of CAG, told The Cable that his message to Republican leaders was simple. “We have told the Republican Party that these guys are not clean” he said, referring to Modi’s party, the Hindu nationalist BJP. “We said, ‘they support extremism and violence and by standing with them, Republicans can not win the hearts and minds of Indian Americans.”
Ubaid said he was puzzled as to why McMorris Rodgers, in his view, was trying to deny a connection to Modi. “Morality and common sense dictate that she should admit a mistake and say she was misled,” he said. “Otherwise she’s going to be digging a bigger hole with the media.”